The United Kingdom Independence Party—once described by former Prime Minister David Cameron as a group of “fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists”—has been consigned to the scrapheap of history after losing almost all of its elected officials in Thursday’s local elections in England.
Better known as UKIP, this was the ragtag party that charismatic former leader Nigel Farage briefly forced people to take seriously. It was the anti-Europe driving force that pressured Cameron’s government into holding the 2016 referendum on European Union membership—which, to even Farage’s surprise, was won.
At its height, it had two members in the British Parliament, and won a European election in 2014. Cameron’s fear of losing Euroskeptic votes to the insurgent party cowed him into the Brexit referendum that cost him his career. The party has suffered since the vote, with its anti-Europe supporters appearing to favor the Conservatives as they seek to deliver Brexit.
But the party is equally known in Britain for its ridiculous scandals, which include, but are certainly not limited to: a candidate accusing a “homosexual donkey” of raping his horse; another blaming 2014’s floods on the legalization of gay marriage; and frequent resuscitation of language last heard in the height of the British Empire such as “bongo bongo land.”
Even as the remaining party officials scraped to find a positive spin on Thursday night’s results on Friday morning, an extraordinary gaffe was committed. UKIP’s general secretary, Paul Oakley, found himself on live radio comparing his party with the Black Death—the epidemic that killed as many as two million people in the 14th century.
“Think of the Black Death in the Middle Ages,” said Oakley, after presumably being awake for a very long time. “It comes along and it causes disruption and then it goes dormant, and that’s exactly what we are going to do. Our time isn’t finished because Brexit is being betrayed.”
Pressed on exactly what the hell he was talking about, he added: “[The Black Death] led to economic growth and the Renaissance, but this isn’t a history lesson, it’s just an analogy, a little soundbite for Radio 4.”
Whether or not UKIP can mend its reputation as well as the Black Death remains to be seen. It lost nearly 100 local politicians Thursday night, and was left with just two. It has no members in the British Parliament, and its contingent in the European Parliament has been in disarray since one of them was punched very hard in the head by another.
Since Farage stepped down as leader in the wake of the referendum, less than two years ago, the party has had four leaders. None have managed to make any kind of impression on the British public apart from Henry Bolton, who gained press attention after his girlfriend said Meghan Markle, as a “black American,” will “taint” the royal family with “her seed.”
Farage, now a well-known pundit on Fox News and apparent confidant of President Trump, is unlikely to be bothered by his party’s downfall. The only people who will mourn the death of UKIP, outside those who rely on it for their wages, are British political journalists who often depended on them for an injection of absurdity into their occasionally dry beat.
The annual UKIP conference, usually held at a British seaside town, often descended into a journalistic competition to see who could tease the most terrible opinion out of a politician or ruddy-cheeked activist. This reporter fondly remembers getting a UKIP member of the European Parliament to say he wanted to leave the EU because his bread toaster was crap.
With its Euroskeptic supporters now rallying behind Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives as she seeks to deliver the EU exit they prize above anything else, UKIP has ceased to be a serious political force and will now be remembered as a colorful and bizarre, but ultimately and inexplicably successful, pressure group.
As Britain prepares to leave the EU, time will tell if the party legacy turns out to be more or less catastrophic than the Black Death.